A Bird in the Hand
1. Carol Russell whittling birds in her Brisbane studio.
Words and photos: Carol Russell
As a maker and teacher of utilitarian objects such as spoons and bowls, I was keen to venture into something more impressionistic. I wanted to make a small object for a friend in need of some comfort and thought a little bird sculpture that felt nice to hold, had smooth pleasing lines and was made from lovely timber might be just the thing. I enjoyed the process very much and these little birds have become a large part of my carving life (photo 1).
I wanted to make objects that were recognisable but abstract in form and could be held in the hand. They could be smooth or textured, painted or not. I wanted them to be quiet and considered and when given as a gift, were a small gesture that had meaning beyond the object itself. I was also looking for other projects to teach both adults and children that set them up to succeed and helped build confidence in using tools, sharpening and playing with shapes without being bound by functionality.
Your choice of wood
2. Made to be held, King Billy pine bird with shou sugi ban (charred and brushed) finish.
The timber used for the whittled birds is very much part of the story, the form can be influenced by the grain. I use simple shapes for more highly figured material and more complex shapes for plainer woods. The birds can make a great canvas for milk paint and other finishes such as the charring technique shou sugi ban (photo 2).
3. Huon pine bird with sanded finish.
I am inclined to use Australian timbers mostly; it feels right to me. I really love to use white beech, Huon pine, King Billy pine, red cedar and Tasmanian blackwood. I think there are timbers we have an affinity with, these are mine. Photo 3 shows a bird carved in Huon pine, while those in photo 4 are made from white beech and red cedar.
4. The timber you choose to make the birds from can make a big difference to the mood of the finished piece.
I try to sketch my ideas as much as I can even though I’m not particularly good at drawing, preferring to work in three dimensions and draw on the piece as I carve. I find honing my observational skills by spending time watching birds and how they move has helped me find the basic shape and proportion I’m looking for. Modelling clay can be a really quick way to get a form, however it’s the sharpness of the tool and the constraints of grain direction that will really determine the outcome.
Capturing an essence
With my carving, I’m aiming at capturing the essence of the subject, whether it’s a bird, cat, dog or pig. Animals have certain characteristics, it’s less about being totally correct in your interpretation and more about capturing that tilt of the head or the set of the ears that portray so much of the animal’s personality. This results in a fairly naive and I hope charming little object.
On a trip to Japan some years back I saw several small creature carvings that spoke very loudly to the nature of animals and people. They were little more than small blocks with a few well-placed faceted cuts, but they spoke volumes.
Methods and means
Other than using a bandsaw or coping saw to cut a basic profile blank from a block of wood, my tool of choice is a whittling knife, usually a Mora #120. I like the length of the blade, not too short or too long, and with a fine tip for detail and a strong enough blade to remove larger sections. I also have some lovely little detail knives by Hape Kiddle which I love. I use a leather strop with honing compound on it to keep my knives nice and sharp. I strop my knife every half an hour or so depending on the hardness of the timber.
I use riffler files, scrapers and sandpaper for a smooth finish. If I want a faceted finish I just use the knife freshly honed to achieve fine finishing cuts that seal the fibres and leave the burnished facets. Making tiny finishing cuts is one of the most mesmerising activities, ask anyone addicted to whittling.
Because the birds are carved hand-held, I’d recommend a carving glove made of kevlar to protect the hand you hold the workpiece in and some carving tape wrapped around your knife hand thumb.
5. Birds in a row. Carved by students in a class from a standard blank but with so many different personalities.
My best friend for bird images is The Australian Bird Guide published by CSIRO. It’s very comprehensive as a reference book. There’s loads on the internet of course and also several templates. A lovely book to get you started is The Danish Art of Whittling Snitte by Frank Egholm, it has a lot of templates if you don’t want to draw your own. Even from the same template, lots of variations are possible (photo 5).
Carving a simple bird
7. Marking out the template on the timber.
Step 1: Draw a profile of the bird shape you want and create a template in paper or cardboard. I have a range of pre-made templates in wood that I use to trace around (photo 6). Use a thick blank if you can, don’t cut too much away with the bandsaw or coping saw (photo 7).
8. Cut out the profile using a bandsaw or handsaw such as a coping saw.
You want the form carved, not cut out, the blank is just the starting point. It’s very hard to work with material that’s too thin, you can’t achieve that plump, rounded look (photo 8). I use 40–50mm thick timber for large birds and 35mm thick for smaller ones.
9. Rounding over all the square edges with a Mora #120 knife and tapering in the beak.
Step 2: When I’m carving the birds, I focus on removing all the square edges on the blank first (photo 9). I focus on the head and bringing it into the beak (photo 10), and then work my way down the body, removing all the waste material.
10, 11, 12. Keep removing waste and taper down to the tail.
Be mindful of your direction of cut to avoid tearing out the grain. If you are getting chipping or tear-out, turn the blank around and go the other way (photos 11, 12). You start at the high point of a curve and go down the hill, when the curve starts to take you uphill again turn the blank around again. You’ll be constantly changing your direction of cut and angling your knife to accommodate grain direction, that’s the magic of whittling when you can read the grain and get beautiful smooth rolling shavings.
13. A twist of the head is an example of how birds show their character in an abstract way.
Step 3: Once the bulk has gone I focus on refining the form, in particular the transition from the body to the head); I’m looking for some abstract character not something totally realistic (photo 13). A twist of the head in that quizzical way birds do is a good example of how they show their character. Sketch on the blank and mark what you want to take off first to give you some direction, you can shade an area and see how it might look.
14. Mark out and begin to carve in any detail such as the wings.
Keep rounding and removing all the flat faces. Work with large facet cuts and then remove the high points between the facets to smooth and refine the surface – strop your knife often to avoid tearing the grain. If you want to create lines for the wings (photo 14), or more eye detail and you’re not comfortable doing it with the knife, try a V-tool. A small set of lino cutting tools is also very helpful to have.
15. Undercut to create plenty of shadow.
Thin out the tail and decide on the shape of the tip (photo 15). Broad, pointy, wedged – so many options. If you’re not aiming for a specific bird you can carve what you like, looking for the line that pleases you most.
16. Use rasps and sandpaper to create a smooth finish.
Step 4: When you’ve achieved the shape you like and your bird has developed a personality you’re happy with you can start your finishing. If you want to smooth it all and sand to a fine finish, using riffler files or rasps is a good first step before sandpaper to take away the high spots and refine the detail (photo 16).
17. Shellac and wax give a lovely smooth finish and highlight the grain.
Next work down through your grades of sandpaper, starting at about 120 grit up to a 400 or 600 grit. If you want a knife finish, hone your knife and go over the whole bird with fine shaving cuts to take away any tear-out. You can burnish by rubbing the surface of both a sanded finish and a knife finish with some of the shavings to create a shine (photo 17).
18. A box of buffed, chalk painted birds heading off to a new home.
Step 5: Paint, wax, or oil. Choose the finish you like or have no finish at all and just let the natural wood speak for itself (photo 18).
Make another bird and another, and make one with a friend or a child or both. You’ll develop a style of your own and be able to enjoy those little moments of peace that the gentle art of whittling brings. Make what pleases you and see where it takes you.
Carol Russell is a Brisbane based woodworker who teaches woodcarving classes from her Albion studio. Learn more at www.carolrussellwoodwork.com.au